"Well, dad, I wish you were going along with us," said Tom to his father next morning. "You don't know what you're going to miss. A fine trip of several hundred miles through the air, seeing strange sights, and experiencing new sensations."
"Yes, I wish you would reconsider your determination, and accompany us," added Mr. Damon. "I would enjoy your company."
"There's plenty of room. We can carry six persons with ease," said Mr. Sharp.
Mr. Swift shook his head, and smiled.
"I have too much work to do here at home," he replied. "Perhaps I may astonish you with something when you come back. I have nearly perfected my latest invention."
There was no combating such a resolution as this, and Tom and the others considered the decision of the aged inventor as final. The airship was ready for the start, and every one had arisen earlier than usual on this account. The bag of tools, for which Tom had gone to town, were put in their proper place, the last of the supplies were taken abroad, final tests were made of the various apparatus, the motor had been given a trial spin, disconnected from the propellers, and then the balloonist announced:
"Well, Tom and Mr. Damon, you had better begin to think of starting. We've had breakfast here, but there's no telling where we will eat dinner."
"Bless my soul! Don't you talk that way!" exclaimed Mr. Damon. "You make me exceedingly nervous. Why shouldn't we know where we are going to eat dinner?"
"Oh, I meant we couldn't tell over just what part of the United States we would be when dinner time came," explained the aeronaut.
"Oh, that's different. Bless my pocket knife, but I thought you meant we might be dashed to pieces, and incapable of eating any dinner."
"Hardly," remarked Mr. Sharp. "The Red Cloud is not that kind of an airship, I hope. But get aboard, if you please."
Tom and Mr. Damon entered the car. It was resting on the ground, on the small wheels used to start the airship when the gas inflation method was not used. In this case, however, it had been decided to rise in the air by means of the powerful vapor, and not to use the wings and planes until another time. Consequently the ship was swaying slightly, and tugging at the restraining cables.
As Tom and Mr. Damon entered the cabin there drove into the Swift yard a dilapidated wagon, drawn by a bony mule, and it did not need the addition of a colored man's voice, calling: "Whoa, dar, Boomerang!" to tell Tom that his friend Eradicate Sampson was on hand. As for Eradicate, as soon as he saw the great airship, which he had never before beheld fully rigged, all ready for a flight, his eyes became big with wonder.
"Is dat yo' flyin' machine, Mistah Swift?" he asked.
"That's it, Rad," answered Tom. "Don't you want to come and take a ride with us?"
"Me? Good land a' massy! No indeedy, Mistah Swift," and the whitewasher, who had descended from his wagon, edged away, as if the airship might suddenly put out a pair of hands and grab him. "No indeedy I doant! I come t' do a little whitewashin' an' when I do dat I'se gwine on mah way. But dat's a pow'ful fine ship; it suah am!"
"Better come and try a flight, Rad," added Mr. Damon. "I'll look after you."
"No, sah, an' I doan't take it kind ob yo' all t' tempt me dat way, nuther," spoke Eradicate. But, when he saw that the craft was stationary, he ventured to approach closer. Gingerly he put out one hand and touched the framework of the wheels, just forward of the cabin. The negro grasped the timber, and lifted it slightly. To his astonishment the whole front of the airship tilted up, for it was about ready to fly, and a child might have lifted it, so buoyant was it. But Eradicate did not know this. Wonderingly he looked at the great bulk of the ship, looming above him, then he glanced at his arm. Once more, noting that the attention of his friends was elsewhere, he lifted the craft. Then he cried "Look yeah, Mistah Swift! Look yeah! No wonder day calls me Sampson. I done lifted dis monstrousness airship wif one hand, See, I kin do it! I kin do it!"
Once more he raised the Red Cloud slightly, and a delighted grin, not unmixed with a look of awe, spread over his honest countenance.
"I suppose you'll give up whitewashing and join a circus as a strong man, now," observed Mr. Sharp, with a wink at his companions.
"Days what I will!" announced Eradicate proudly. "I neber knowed I was dat strong, but ob course I allers knowed I had some muscle. Golly, I must hab growed strong ober night! Now, Boomerang, yo' suah has got t' look out fo' yo' sef. No mo' ob yo' cuttin' up capers, or I'll jest lift you up, an' sot yo' down on yo' back, I suah will," and the negro feeling of his biceps walked over to where the mule stood, with its eyes closed.
"I guess you can cast off, Tom," called Mr. Sharp, as he entered the car, having seen that everything was all right. "We'll not go up very far at first, until Mr. Damon gets used to the thin air."
"Bless my soul, I believe I'm getting nervous," announced the eccentric man. "Bless my liver, but I hope nothing happens."
"Nothing will happen," Mr. Sharp assured him. "Just keep calm, when it feels as if the bottom was dropping out of everything and you'll soon get over it. Are you casting off those ropes, Tom? Is all clear?"
"All but the bow and stern lines."
"You attend to the bow line, and I'll go to the stern," and, going over to the gas generator, Mr. Sharp started it so as to force more vapor into the red aluminum container. This had the effect of rendering the airship more buoyant, and it tugged and strained harder than ever at the ropes.
"Good-by, Tom," called Mr. Swift, reaching up to shake hands with his son. "Drop me a line when you get a chance."
"Oh, Tom, do be careful," implored Mrs. Baggert, her kind face showing her anxiety. "May I kiss you good-by?"
"Of course," answered the young inventor, though the motherly housekeeper had not done this since he was a little chap. She had to stand on a soap box, which Eradicate brought in order to reach Tom's face, and, when she had kissed him she said:
"Oh, I'm so worried! I just know you'll be killed, risking your lives in that terrible airship!"
"Ha! Not a very cheerful view to take, madam," observed Mr. Damon. "Don't hold that view, I beg of you. Bless my eyelashes, but you'll see us coming home, covered with glory and star dust."
"I'm sure I hope so," answered Mrs. Baggert, laughing a little in spite of herself.
The last ropes were cast off. Good-bys were shouted as the airship shot into the air, and Mr. Sharp started the motor, to warm it up before the propellers were thrown into gear. The twenty cylinders began exploding with a terrific racket, as the muffler was open, and Tom, looking down, saw Boomerang awaken with a jump. The mule was so frightened that he started off on a dead run, swinging the rickety, old wagon along behind him.
Eradicate Sampson, who had been feeling his muscle since he discovered what he thought was his marvelous strength, saw what was happening.
"Whoa, dar, Boomerang!" he shouted. Then, as the tailboard of the wagon swung past him, he reached out and grabbed it. Perhaps he thought he could bring the runaway mule up standing, but, if he did, he was grievously disappointed. Boomerang pulled his master along the gravel walk, and kept running in spite of Eradicate's command to "whoa, dar!"
It might have gone hard with him, had not Garret Jackson, the engineer, running in front of Boomerang, caught the animal. Eradicate picked himself up, and gazed sadly at his arms. The navigators of the air could not hear what he said, but what he thought was evident to them.
Then, as Mr. Sharp deadened the explosions of the powerful motor. Tom, looking at a gauge, noted that their height was seven hundred feet. "High enough!" called Mr. Sharp, and it was time, for Mr. Damon, in spite of his resolution, was getting pale.
The gas was shut off, the propellers thrown into gear, and, with a rush the Red Cloud shot toward the south, passing over the Swift homestead, and high above the heads of the crowd that had gathered to witness the start. The eventful voyage of the air had begun.